Saturday, April 10, 2021

Game 408: The Dungeon Masters Assistant (1985)

 
Nothing about this screen fills you with confidence.
         
The Dungeon Masters Assistant
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1985 for DOS
Date Started: 7 April 2021
Date Ended: 7 April 2021
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
    
You learn to recognize certain "bad signs" when you're a CRPG addict. Confusion over the name of the game is one of them; grammatical errors in the game's name is another. The Dungeon Masters [sic] Assistant has both. The file names and the documentation that come with the game suggest that it's called Dungeon Quest. The title screen says otherwise. After that, the game can only improve, and the good news is that it does, a bit. It's not commercial-quality software, but it's a reasonably good amateur take on the Dunjonquest system using mostly Original Dungeons and Dragons rules.
    
The game begins with a character creation process that seems to draw primarily from OD&D. The game rolls 3-18 for the standard set of attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma) with no re-rolls. If you don't like what you got, you have to finish the process and delete the character later. You choose a class, and here dwarf, elf, and halfling are listed as "class" options along with fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief. After choosing class, you sometimes get an option to raise the class's prime requisite by one point by sacrificing two points of a less-important attribute.
        
What if I want an elf magic user?
        
You name the character and choose from lawful, neutral, and chaotic alignments, then get to see your saving throws against poison, magic wands, paralysis, dragon breath, and rods, staves, or spells.
   
Created characters then venture into "the supply shoppe" where they must accept or reject one thing at a time, including armor, weapons, backpacks, lanterns, torches, tinder boxes, oil, rope, and a stake and mallet. The store's implementation of classic D&D restrictions is a bit haphazard, although I admittedly don't know the specific rules in OD&D. There are a few weapon restrictions, though not many, and there do not seem to be any armor restrictions at all.
        
I could have my mage in plate armor wielding a battle axe.
      
Characters can then enter "the quest," which is a random selection of 9 small, single-screen dungeons. Up to 6 characters can enter at a time. Their icons are given as numbers from 1-6, and they each take turns moving around the dungeon and performing various actions. You can play them cooperatively or competitively. 
   
Offering independent turn-based movement for six characters is something that even commercial RPGs rarely do (the "blobber" style is more common, even in third-person views), so it's an impressive bit of programming. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well. Games that implement such a system really need a method of assigning an "active character" in case there's only enough stuff for one person to do. This one not only lacks such a system, but it doesn't even have a command to terminate the remainder of a character's movement for a particular turn. If there's nothing for one character to do, you have to just have him pace back and forth until his turn ends.
    
A single character fights a roomful of ghouls.
        
Programming is also moderately impressive when it comes to lighting. The game implements a "fog of war" effect in which the dungeon is only revealed slowly as you explore it--but only if you have a torch or lantern, oil, and an ignition source. This effect is assigned at the character level, so one character with no light source ends up in a room on his own, the room goes dark. The game otherwise automatically uses flint, refills the lantern, and so on, so you don't need to micromanage your light source. You just have to have the items.
    
Here, I have three characters exploring at the same time. Character #3 is in a room, but he doesn't have a light source. The other two do.
      
The game stocks the dungeon with monsters appropriate to the characters' levels. You meet ghouls, skeletons, rats, kobolds, and goblins at Level 1 and gorgons, dragons, and vampires at higher levels. The game offers about 50 monsters total, with hit points, special attacks, and weaknesses drawn from the D&D bestiary. Ghouls can paralyze; werewolves can only be harmed by magic or silver weapons; trolls can only be killed by fire (a torch works, but not a lantern). Combat is just a matter of hitting A)ttack and watching the results.
    
Enemies can have gold and items, and treasure chests are seeded in the dungeons. There's no winning condition for the levels. When you're done exploring, you simply exit the dungeon and Q)uit to get back to the main menu, at which point the game calculates your accumulated experience and gold, automatically leveling up a character who earns enough experience.
       
The only things I have to do are pay taxes and die . . . and I can evade death.
      
It's not bad as a bare-bones dungeon crawler, but it lacks anything more interesting, like quests, puzzles, and special encounters. Options during exploration are limited to attacking, searching, casting a spell, opening doors, and a variety of inventory actions.
   
Unfortunately, it has a couple of things that are either bugs or just unimplemented bits of programming. Spellcasters are supposed to be offered spells in the store, but they aren't. Items you find in the dungeon don't seem to remain in your inventory when you return to the main menu. Since spells are all cast from scrolls in this game, this means that spellcasters never have any spells. Doors often taken four or five tries to open and they don't stay open, so every character who wants to pass through has to open it independently (a feature the game shares with the commercial SpellJammer). Combat is a bit too easy; I had no trouble clearing a dungeon with just a single fighter.
      
Grabbing the treasure after clearing the dungeon.
     
The name of the game seems to come from a couple of customization options. You can create your own items to add to the store, plus edit the ones already there, and the manual offers instructions on how to create or modify dungeon files. I think maybe the creator intended that the game be used to accompany tabletop gaming, with the computer handling the mechanics of character creation, inventory, and combat, and the dungeon master making up more interesting descriptions, quests, and encounters. It works slightly better in such a scenario than as a single-player game, but not much. I think any good DM would still chafe at its limitations.
       
My character sheet after a couple successful explorations.
       
As for the GIMLET, the game suffers for a lack of game world and backstory, NPCs, and quests (0s), but it doesn't do bad with character creation and development (3), and it programs some of the complexities of Dungeons and Dragons foes (2). While I can't give much to magic and combat without the magic (1), it otherwise does reasonably well for equipment (2) and economy (3). The graphics are nothing to look at; there's no sound except an error beep; and the interface has some rough spots (1). Overall gameplay can be as swift as you want, but it lacks challenge and depth (2). That gives us a total of 15.
   
The creator was named Bill Chelmowski. He wrote it in GW-BASIC, I was unable to find any information about how he distributed it in 1985, but he would have wanted to stay under the radar because Strategic Simulations, under a license from TSR, released its own title of the same name in 1988.

 

33 comments:

  1. Having the computer handle the combat doesn't give the DM a lot of leeway to fudge rolls, or for the players to try things besides "hit enemy until dead." Still, it's interesting that the idea of a virtual tabletop goes so far back. Today, my Pathfinder group plays over Roll20.

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  2. Given the year, the red screens, and the fact that elf, dwarf and halfling are classes not races, this is almost certainly based not on OD&D but on D&D Basic, and specifically the 1983 Red Box.

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    1. That and the fact that there are "fighters" and not "fighting-men". But even absent that and the classes, yeah, the year alone would have made it extremely improbable that it was based on OD&D; OD&D had been basically obsolete since 1977, and it would have been kind of odd for anyone to make a game based on OD&D as late as 1985.

      (Though not entirely impossible, I guess. There are still people even today who insist that OD&D was the best edition, and still play it, or play retroclones based on OD&D. I... tend to think those people are kind of weird.)

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    2. (I never played strict OD&D or BECMI, but I prefer oldschool style systems and campaigns. In the old times the gaming style and consequently the rules made exploration the most important pillar of the three. 4E placed the emphasis on battles, and 5E on storytelling/roleplaying. I absolutely prefer exploration, I prefer when my players are not explicit, pretty much immortal heroes. There are some very nice things in 5E, but for me OSR games are much more usable in that forward facing, sandbox, picaresque game style. Is it weird?)

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    3. The alignment offerings are Red Box as well. Have we had a title that was explicitly influenced by Basic before?

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    4. @Laszlo Benyi: Oh, I'm not referring just to people who prefer "old-school" gaming in general. I think there are some good points in favor of it, and while I'm not really an OSR fan myself, I can see where they're coming from. I wasn't saying it's weird to like old-school games; I was referring to people who thought OD&D specifically, the ruleset from the original boxed set, was the best ever edition of D&D. I mean, still wanting to play Basic, I can get. Still preferring first-edition AD&D, I can get. (Or retroclones of those games.) I don't share those preferences myself, but I wouldn't call them weird. But OD&D? That was very much a first draft; it was extremely incomplete in a lot of ways; I'm not sure exactly what those people think they're getting out of OD&D that's so superior to the later versions.

      @Tristan Gall: OD&D did have the same alignments as Basic, so that's not one of the things that shows this game wasn't based on OD&D. But yeah, overall GregT is certainly right that this was based on the Red Box. As for whether there were any other games explicitly influenced by Basic... I couldn't name any off the top of my head, but I'd be surprised if there weren't. Basic D&D was very popular in its day. Not as popular as AD&D, maybe, but it had its share of adherents.

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    5. The only BECMI influenced game I'm aware of is a console tactics game:

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons:_Order_of_the_Griffon

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    6. It *does* sound like Basic D&D, except for the "easy" part. A single fighter most certainly not be able to survive an entire dungeon level with ease!

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    7. Hm, out of curiosity, I did a search on Mobygames for "Mystara", the flagship Basic D&D setting, and a few more games did turn up that were set in that world and therefore almost certainly based on Basic D&D. Only one of them seems to have been an RPG, though, Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun, and that was a console game that doesn't seem to have ever had a PC release, so it's unlikely to be covered here.

      Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't other games inspired by Basic D&D—any game set on Mystara is likely to use Basic D&D rules, but the converse isn't necessarily true. There may very well be games based on Basic D&D but not set on Mystara, or that were set on Mystara but don't mention it in the title or the Mobygames description, or that were unlicensed games inspired by D&D but not bearing the D&D brand and not using D&D trademarks. It's entirely possible that one of the games already covered on this blog was influenced by Basic D&D, but nothing comes to mind offhand.

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    8. (Er... I mean one of the games previously covered on this blog besides Dungeon Masters Assistant, of course.)

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    9. I wasn't sure if the basic set had rules for saving throws. In any event, my reading is that the "basic" sets go back to OD&D for their core rules, so I don't think I'm wrong in saying that the rules of this game are based on OD&D as opposed to AD&D.

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    10. Both the Basic sets and first-edition AD&D go back to OD&D for their core rules. They take things in slightly different directions from there, of course—Basic lumps together classes and levels and (until you get the Expert set) limits characters to three levels; AD&D adds good and evil alignments and a whole bunch of fiddly rules for things like disease and henchman loyalty that probably most DMs didn't bother with—but the core rules are pretty much the same. They both have the same six ability scores; the same saving throw categories; the same combat system of finding the number the attacker needs to roll on d20 to hit by looking up the defender's armor class vs. the attacker's level or hit dice on a table. (This combat lookup table was just as unwieldy as it sounds, and its replacement with "THAC0" was one of the biggest changes between first and second edition AD&D.) So, yes, you could say that a game based on the Basic set ultimately gets its core rules from OD&D, but you could say the same of a game based on first-edition AD&D too.

      Not that I'm suggesting you should edit your post and "correct" it—honestly, this is kind of a technical detail that most of your readers won't care about, and I think I've sometimes accidentally written "OD&D" when I meant Basic in the past myself.

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    11. (Dang it, typo—I meant of course classes and races, not levels.)

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    12. Basic is very much a different ruleset to OD&D - which you can tell by how quickly I recognised that this *wasn't* OD&D.

      It does have saving throws, specifically the ones mentioned here.

      Basic is as different from OD&D as AD&D 2E is from OD&D.

      Under normal circumstances, this would all be pedantry of the highest and most irritating degree - except that "first and perhaps only videogame based on the D&D Basic rules" is exactly the sort of thing your blog likes to note, and given the importance of D&D to the western CRPG tradition, it's probably deserving of that note.

      Also, as Jalen notes above, there are several games based on Basic's default setting of Mystara - including the arcade games - but Warriors of the Eternal Sun is to my knowledge the only one that implements anything that's identifiable as specifically the Basic ruleset, and I haven't played it so I don't know whether it uses more of that ruleset than just the class selection.

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    13. On that topic, would you or your blog perhaps benefit from a guest post on the history and editions of D&D, with an emphasis on how to recognise which edition a game is referencing, and which editions are substantively different rulesets rather than minor iterations? I'd be happy to offer one, at this point.

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    14. Stronghold uses basic D&D. Surprisingly, it's a fantasy kingdom management sim not an rpg at all.

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  3. Hold on, wait, this game allowed players to make their own dungeon levels?

    ...Dagnabbit, another 80s game I have to add to my list...

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  4. This seems bad and simple, compared to some other games of that era, still, being able to make dungeons is cool, and the idea of controlling several players and there seems to be a decent amount of monsters.

    Just odd quirks like lack of spells in stores dragging the game down, gives the idea that even dungeon crawler fans shouldn't bother with this game.

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    1. The way it rotated the turns and that a single character is capable of putting up a good fight makes me think the game is really a multiplayer game.

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  5. Sone details might reflect the later Mentzer edition, but absent those it could be based on the 1981 Moldvay, Cook and Marsh. That is mostly a refined take on the original set plus select elements from Supplement I. At the time the "B/X" edition impressed me as very well done, and it seems to be the favorite starting point for "retro-clone" works.

    Spells being limited to scrolls might be fun if the program (A) allowed one to invest time and gold making them, and (B) provided a context in which how much to prepare between expeditions was an interesting choice. It looks as if the plan was to allow simple purchase, but that got overlooked in a rush to release.

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  6. Totally off topic, but when did you update the banner on the homepage!?

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    1. He has a sci-fi themed one for when he's playing science fiction games (Mission: Thunderbolt). There hasn't been one for a while.

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  7. Off topic but Good ol' G-Dubbs! I loved typing code from magazine listings into it.
    I always feel like MS should've kept including a basic, easily learned (not BASIC) programming language in Windows as well - I owe my whole career to GW Basic and the massive 600+ page BASIC manual my XT clone came with.
    Not having a programming language as easily accessible as GW BASIC was meant that kids who were just playing around on Windows could only really do things like minesweeper. Imagine if they could click and icon and access an immediate code environment? Half the kids in the 90s would've become coders...

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    1. My own first programming experience was with BASIC too—not GW-BASIC but Applesoft, but yeah, same idea. Yeah, it is a bit of a pity that modern computers don't have that kind of easily accessible built-in programming environment.

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    2. Open your browser console and you have a JavaScript programming environment.

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    3. There's plenty of free-as-beer-and-speech IDEs out there for any language for Windows, Mac and Linux. Nearly as many free learning materials as well.

      If anything's going to change how many people are interested in coding per generation, I think it'll be the gradual move away from general-purpose PCs to low-cost smart devices. I'm not anti-smart-device by any means--I love my tablet and I'd be lost without my smart phone--but there's no doubt that it's confining. Everything is constantly version-checked against an authoritative source of apps and content. OSes aren't on the filesystem, they're directly encoded in resin-blobbed chips and you'll void your warranty trying to access them.

      It's easy to forget as an adult computer geek, but formative experiences are everything when it comes to growing up around and learning how to use computers. For those four-year-olds you see with brand new iPhones, their primary computer takes care of itself with very little user intervention and has exactly one source of applications. They might grow up never touching a physical keyboard, let alone anything that will let them write their own applications or think about WHY a computer is the way it is.

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    4. Having to install an IDE (and choosing one, plus a programming language) is a major hurdle that hardly anyone will take outside of a computer science class. On the Apple II, when you switched it on, you instantly had a BASIC interpreter and could start coding with instructions from the manual. And it was a sensible thing to do since you ususally didn't have that many programs or games on these machines. Nowadays, there's just too much already available, and moving a character across a screen won't impress anybody anymore.

      Not necessarily a problem, as long as schools teach what people learned by themselves back then. And if you want to study computer science at a University, abstract thinking and a good grasp of math is actually more important than previous coding experience.

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    5. @Buck: While it may be technically true that there's a Javascript programming environment available in your browser console, that's not at all the same thing, and doesn't seem particularly relevant to the matter at hand. I doubt too many kids took their first steps toward learning programming by typing Javascript into their browser consoles.

      @Alex: Of course there are a lot of free IDEs out there, but as Buck says in their second post, you still have to go through the trouble of downloading and installing them; it's a different level from having BASIC available as a built-in part of the operating system. Back then it seemed that every kid with an Apple or another computer that could run BASIC at least knew how to write a simple program like 10 PRINT "HELLO" : GOTO 10. Is there any such universal programming experience nowadays?

      Then again, I concede that much of my feelings about the loss of BASIC may be just founded on nostalgia and/or grumpyoldmanism. Things are different now, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're worse. No, BASIC doesn't come built in with the operating system, but as you say, there are a lot of free learning materials available now. In fact, I guess in some ways things are more conducive now to learning programming. Back then BASIC may have been readily available, but we had to learn how to program it from books or magazines; now there are all sorts of free websites that teach programming interactively. And kids may not be learning how to program through BASIC anymore, but there are plenty of other ways kids can get introduced to programming; I wonder how many kids get their first taste of programming by writing simple scripts for popular systems like GameMaker and RPGMaker?

      (Besides, I'm coming to realize that my learning of BASIC as a kid was fairly superficial anyway. In preparation for the relaunch of my blog about level editors and game creation systems, I've been going through the BASIC code of the Apple release of Temple of Apshai to try to understand the exact format of the game data files, and... yeah, it's written in BASIC, but it goes way beyond what I did with BASIC as a kid; I wrote some simple games, but I never use BLOAD, and only used POKE and PEEK for certain special memory locations that had specific effects, and I didn't know anything at the time about Apple shape tables. There was a lot more to BASIC than I had realized. (Though it turns out technically the Apple Temple of Apshai isn't written entirely in BASIC; it resorts to machine language for one routine to clear the left half of the screen, presumably for speed reasons. Took me a while to figure out what that routine was doing...) Granted, one has to start somewhere, and such superficial knowledge of BASIC is still a starting point, but by that same token simple scripting languages used in various games are valid starting points too.)

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  8. Proving the idea that, no matter how obscure or awful the game is, there will be someone with nostalgia for it, this game was a huge part of my and my sibling's childhoods. We ran it on an old IBM PC Jr, and took turns playing for hours and hours, spending our time away from the keyboard drawing sketches of our characters. Seeing it with new eyes, it's very clear the heavy lifting was being done by our imaginations and not so much the game itself, but it's still delightful to see you break it out, even though it does not hold up well.

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  9. Huh, that's a weird little detail. The "saving throws" listed here are from D&D (2nd edition and earlier), but they've mixed up categories for no clear reason. In the D&D rules, paralysis should be moved to the the first line, staff moved to the second (along with rods), and polymorph should be added to the third.

    As I don't see any reason for these particular changes, maybe the author was going from memory and got it ever-so-slightly different?

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  10. "You learn to recognize certain "bad signs" when you're a CRPG addict. Confusion over the name of the game is one of them; grammatical errors in the game's name is another. The Dungeon Masters [sic] Assistant has both."

    The grammar of Dungeon Masters Assistant is consistent with the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide and Players Handbook, although AD&D 2nd edition published in 1989 would alter the titles to Dungeon Master's Guide and Player's Handbook.

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  11. In B/X (which this game is based on) and OD&D Elves are considered to be a combination Fighter/Magic-User. The first dual class, if you will, where as Dwarves and Halflings could only be Fighters (or Thieves, if you were using them). Elves could wear metal armor and cast spells at the same time.

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